Tag Archives: Amy Dickinson

Dear Imprudence: I’ll Keep My Body Hair, Thanks

Body hair has come up on Dear Imprudence before, so I thought this recent Ask Amy column might be relevant to the interests of some readers, in addition to being an example of an advice column that does not actually suck!

A reader wrote in to ask:

Dear Amy: I am a girl in my junior year of high school, and the volleyball coach won’t let me compete until I shave my underarms and legs (our uniforms are sleeveless tops and shorts).

I don’t want to be forced into something that I feel is completely unnecessary. Leg and underarm hair is a completely natural part of becoming a woman.

Is this discrimination? Is there anything I can do (besides shave)? I really want to play volleyball! — Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

Ok, first of all, this high school athlete rocks. I like that she’s standing up for herself, and refused to accept the mandate to shave her body hair or else. She’s comfortable with her body hair, she doesn’t have a problem with her hair in her uniform, and she sees no reason to shave. She’s also specifically identified concerns about discrimination, wondering what she can do to retain bodily autonomy (because being told to shave your body hair is most definitely a violation of autonomy) and still play the sport she loves. Right on, Hair Today!

Amy seems to agree:

Dear Gone: I’m going to assume that your coach does not make the male players at your school adhere to the same shaving practices.

I shared your letter with Lenora Lapidus, director of the Women’s Rights Project for the American Civil Liberties Union, who responded, “This is clearly gender discrimination, based on stereotypes of how girls and women should look.” Lapidus would like to remind your coach that Title IX prohibits discrimination in any institution receiving federal funds.

Title IX is the federal statute that pushed open the door for girls to compete in sports on an equal footing with boys.

Lapidus suggests that you start by talking to the coach. “Try to work it out at school. It seems like something they should come around about because this is fairly clear-cut.”

If your coach continues to insist on this shaving rule, take your concern to the principal.

Bam. That opening line is choice, in addition to cutting to the critical point here, which is that, yeah, I’m willing to bet that if the coach also handles the men’s teams, shaving probably isn’t required (unless the coach supervises the swim team, where shaving for all genders is usually recommended for competition). If you’re going to enforce unequal ‘appearance rules,’ which is basically what asking an athlete to shave is unless there’s a compelling reason to do so (leg and armpit hair, to my knowledge, do not impair volleyball performance…any volleyball players want to speak up here?), well, you’d better get ready for someone to point out that the policy is discriminatory.

If talking to the coach won’t work, which seems probable from reading between the lines, I’d say Hair Today might want to consider going to a mentor on the teaching staff, if possible, before escalating to the principal. Sometimes a friendly word from another teacher can accomplish the needed goal without getting administration involved and causing tensions in the future. But, yes, if that doesn’t work, the principal should absolutely back her.

If the principal doesn’t help? Well, I imagine there are a whole lot of hairy feminists and feminist athletes who would be more than happy to lend their assistance to allowing No Hair to compete in sports with the level of body hair she’s comfortable with.

Dear Imprudence: Food Allergies and Inconsiderate Hosts

A recent Ask Amy column featured a letter from a reader with a problem I suspect at least some FWD readers (and contributors) can sympathise with: Handling food allergies when you’re invited to a friend’s for dinner.

Dear Amy: My neighbor recently hosted a very nice dinner party with food and entertainment. I attended and had a great time. The problem is that the host noticed I was skipping several of the dishes and asked why.

I explained that I have severe food allergies so I took only those foods I can safely eat. I had plenty to eat, and it was delicious.

The hostess became very upset with me because I did not advise her in advance of my allergies.

I felt that rather than have her change her menu it made more sense to simply skip those dishes not suitable for me. Was I wrong? I was trying to be polite. — Baffled Guest

I definitely respect this strategy; sometimes, when you try to tell a host about an issue beforehand, you get heaving sighs and an expression that clearly says ‘oh, dear, I wish I hadn’t invited you.’ And then, your host will assure you that all the food is safe to eat, oh, except for the thing you’re allergic to in the stuffing, but you can just pick it out, right? This person has apparently adopted the ‘checking to see what I can eat and going from there’ approach to handling food allergies, quite possibly after one too many dramas. And evidently, a pleasant time was had by the guest, so what’s the problem here?

As for the hostess, well…yes, by all means, get upset at someone who was trying not to make a fuss. That will definitely encourage the person to want to return the invitation, and to want to bring up said food allergies with other dinner invitations in the future. For sure. Nothing like being lectured to make you feel supergreat!

Here’s what Amy said:

Dear Baffled: You were not impolite. Your hostess, however, wasn’t quite polite.

Generally, depending on the type of party, it is fine to let a host know in advance, “I have some food allergies, but I can usually work around them, so I don’t want you to worry about catering to it.” The host can then decide what, if anything, to try to do about it.

Regardless of the dynamic, it is a real party spoiler when a host lectures a guest after the guest has had a gracious good time.

What Amy missed here was that it’s not that the host ‘wasn’t quite polite.’ It’s that the burden here is still being placed on the person with allergies, not the person doing the entertaining. Maybe I was raised in an odd household, but my father always taught me that Guests Rule, and that I should go to every length to make them comfortable and happy in our home, a habit I keep up in my own home. If a guest specifically has to ask for something, I am doing something wrong.

Which is why, when I invite people over for dinner, I always ask if there are any special food concerns (dietary, religious, or otherwise), and specifically ask if there are any dishes my guests simply don’t like. It only takes a second, and if I’m confused, I simply ask for clarification. It’s really not that difficult. And it lets my guests know that their comfort and enjoyment is paramount in my mind. If I encounter a restriction I’m not familiar with, I take it as an exciting challenge; it means I can hit the recipe books and get experimenting!

Menu planning takes work, and thinking about the needs of your guests should be part of that work. And a hostess who lectures guest is someone who clearly fails at hospitality.

Dear Imprudence: Creating Space, Retaining Support

A recent Ask Amy column featured a letter from a college student with a common problem; parents who want to exert a high level of control. Here in the US, school’s been in session for a little over a month now, and the winter is coming on, and I suspect that the number of students struggling with the adjustment to college will be increasing, judging from my own experiences in college. The newness has worn off, it’s getting dark and cold, and, well:

Dear Amy: I love my parents, but even though I got straight A’s in high school without their assistance and have never gotten in trouble, they constantly nag me about homework and grades.

I thought this would end when I went to college, but I was wrong.

When I admitted I save my homework for Sunday afternoon, my mom chastised me.

She gets upset that I shield my personal life from her, but when I do share, she finds something to criticize, nag and/or make snide comments about.

When I ask my mom to stop, she either gets defensive or tells me it’s her job as my mother.

I am still recovering from depression, so I need more support and acceptance from my parents and less passive-aggressive criticism and nagging.

Any suggestions?

— Frustrated Freshman

There are a couple of interesting things going on here, and I wanted to tease out one in particular because I was just talking about it with Anna: Policing of study habits. Many people seem to believe that there is a specific ‘right’ way to study and that if you don’t study that way, you’re doing it wrong. Staying up all night to study is wrong, even if your sleep schedule is actually better suited to studying at night. Studying with music on is wrong. Moving while studying is wrong. There’s a whole long list of things touted as ‘good study habits,’ like ‘don’t leave your work until the end of the weekend.’

To me, what makes a good study habit is what works for a given student. By all performance metrics generally recognised and accepted, this student is doing well. Studying at the end of the weekend hasn’t precluded making good marks and going well in school. Clearly, it’s a system that works for this student.

For this student, there’s an added dimension of depression and the need and desire for support. When talking about your personal life or your approach to school results in judgmental comments and nagging, you tend to shut down, which means that you can’t access that support. Nagging this student about study habits sets up two things: The student is being told ‘school, you’re doing it wrong’ and is being told that support isn’t available, even if it’s wanted, from family members. That has an extremely isolating effect.

What does Amy have to say?

Dear Frustrated: I hope you are working with someone at your college’s counseling center. Because of your depression, you should receive ongoing support.

A counselor at school will be familiar with the issue of hovering parents and will help you establish a healthy and mature distance from them.

Your mother’s behavior has consequences. You should continue to reassure her but not offer details about your life which she is likely to criticize.

Because your parents are having such a hard time letting go, you will need to establish the distance necessary to grow. If your mother starts to nag and criticize, you should say, “Mom, I don’t like this, and it’s not helpful, so I’m going to have to check in with you later.”

Do your best academically, and also join organizations that will bring you in contact with other students outside the classroom.

And don’t drink. Alcohol is woefully omnipresent on most campuses, and using it will aggravate your depression.

Ah, ok, a lecture.

This student seems to have it pretty together. Depression is recognised as an issue and it seems likely that the student, you know. Knows there is a college counseling centre, although it’s worth pondering how accessible that centre is. How easy is it to make an appointment? Is it possible to discreetly get information? Many students don’t seek mental health counseling because they are afraid of the associated stigma, or because they can’t figure out how to work the appointment system, or any number of things.

The advice with the script to the mother is pretty sound; after all, the student did write in for advice about dealing with parents. But the added lecturing seems a bit unnecessary to me; the student isn’t asking for advice on dealing with depression, but specifically for advice on navigating a relationship with parents. That’s a separate, although related, issue. The question here wasn’t ‘how can I deal with depression in college’ but ‘how do I set boundaries with my mother while also asking her for the support I need?’ And the student specifically mentions wanting more support from the parents, not just in general; this is a letter about a family relationship and how to make it work.

Readers who have dealt with dynamics like this, how did you deal with it? What advice would you give the student on addressing the dynamics of the relationship?

Dear Imprudence: One of These Things is Not Like the Others

On last week’s Dear Amy, a reader wrote in for some relationship advice. The reader’s girlfriend is becoming more distant, and the reader wants to know what to do:

Dear Amy: I have been in a relationship with a woman for two years. I love her. She says she loves me. She says she wants to marry me and be together forever.

In the beginning, she needed to see me every other day, if not more often. All of our phone calls were long and rich with conversation.

Over the last several months, she has cheated on me numerous times with an ex-boyfriend, although she says she doesn’t like it, didn’t plan it and doesn’t love him.

Lately all phone calls happen while she is watching television or reading. They are very empty.

She has turned down all of my offers to get together.

When I express my feelings of confusion or when I tell her I miss her, she makes me feel I’m out of line. She is hostile.

How can I get her to open up to me again without seeming needy and insecure?

I believe the ex may be back in the picture, but I don’t know if this is the reason for the distance.

She is also bipolar.

How can I bring the love of my life back into my arms again?

— Hopelessly Devoted

Notice anything about this letter? As I read along, I thought ‘gee, this sounds like a situation where the relationship is pretty much over, and the party writing the letter just doesn’t realise it, or wants someone else to affirm it. There’s some emotional distance going on, and the letter writer is struggling with it.’ This is a scenario that plays out pretty much every day in relationships of all sorts.

And then, bam, the second to last sentence. ‘She is also bipolar.’ Just kind of thrown in there. It feels like an afterthought to me, rather than being brought up at the start of the letter as a piece of information that may potentially be important, and it feels less like being aware of something that might impact their relationship, and more like an attempt at just tossing off blame for where the relationship went; ‘she’s bipolar, and that’s why all of this is happening.’

Are there some disabilities that impact the way people think and interact with others, process information, and handle emotional conversations? There absolutely are. Being aware of the things that might change someone’s comfort level or ability to engage with a conversation is not the same as blaming someone for an integral part of that person’s identity and deciding that person can’t be approached at all. The girlfriend has become the disability, and everything wrong with the relationship  is suddenly because of the disability.

Amy responds:

Dear Devoted: You already know the truth. Your girlfriend has lost interest in you.

Whether she is cheating on you again or is going through a depressed cycle of her bipolar disorder, you cannot force her to love you, want to be with you or even have an honest conversation with you about your relationship.

I suggest, therefore, that you be completely honest with yourself and frank with her about your own needs.

You want honesty, fidelity and a close, romantic relationship. So say so. You won’t come off as needy, but as a guy who knows who he is and what he wants.

You also have to be willing to walk away from a relationship that is so imbalanced. You deserve better.

Amy’s approach here doesn’t really integrate an honest discussion about disability and how it might impact how the girlfriend is feeling. There’s one brief mention about ‘going through a depressed cycle,’ but that’s it. The advice about being frank is pretty solid; the letter writer definitely does need to communicate, but it might be good to start with communicating on terms the girlfriend will feel comfortable with. Perhaps she doesn’t want to talk about this on the phone and would feel more comfortable in email. Maybe she wants to meet in person. Maybe she needs some space and is having trouble articulating it.

The way Amy approaches this, it’s centered on the letter writer’s needs. She classifies the relationship as ‘imbalanced’ while providing rather imbalanced advice. She’s right when she says that you can’t force someone to love you, but lack of love might not actually be what is going on here. Indeed, the girlfriend may very much love her partner, and just be in a bad place right now.

It’s not clear from the original letter whether the people involved in this relationship have had a conversation about the girlfriend’s disability and how it sometimes impacts the ways she thinks and feels. Sometimes, people are just distant and not interested in a relationship anymore and it has nothing to do with disability. Sometimes, people are having a hard time of things in ways that are related to their mental health conditions, and need to be supported. Not by being reduced to their disabilities, not by having their disabilities blamed for everything, but by having a space where their needs are accommodated.

The message we are left with from this particular advice column seems to be  that people with bipolar disorder are inherently unsuitable for relationships or serious conversations, and neither of these things is true.

Dear Imprudence: Ask Amy and ‘Making Calls’ on Abuse

At the end of July, I wrote about an Ask Amy column where she pretty clearly failed to identify an abusive relationship. Apparently at least one Ask Amy reader felt the same way I did, and wrote in to say so:

Dear Amy: I worry about the teenager who wrote to you, saying her brother called her “dumb” and “lazy.” She called it “verbal abuse,” and you said it was not.

I beg to differ. I took this sort of abuse from an older sibling all during my childhood and it continued into adulthood. I now have nothing to do with the sibling who treated me this way.

— Offended

I like it when advice columnists air complaints they receive, even if their responses are usually tepid, as was the case here:

Dear Offended: I agree that siblings are capable of abuse and cruelty — but I think it’s a judgment call whether an older sibling teasing a younger sibling amounts to abuse or is an irritation, which can be handled with adult help and by the sibling standing up to the elder.

I made a “call” on this letter, but any young person who feels he or she is being abused should seek not only adult advice, but also adult intervention.

‘Well, ok, but I’m still right, because it was really just sibling teasing.’

Contrast this ‘call’ with the call Ask Amy made on another recent letter:

Dear Amy: I have two women friends who are closer to each other than I am to either of them. Over the years, the relationship between these friends has devolved into something like a battered spouse scenario.

My one friend is meanly critical of the other and goes to her house almost daily, screaming profanities at her for her faults du jour.

It has escalated to the point that I am worried for both of them. What can I do, if anything?

— Worried

This sounds like an abusive relationship to me, and as it happens, Amy agrees:

Dear Worried: It sounds as though your friend is locked into an abusive relationship with this other woman; please encourage her to leave this relationship, and also urge her to get help. Tell her you’re very worried about her.

If you witness one person screaming profanities at another or are worried about your friend’s safety (and it sounds as if you are — or should be), you should call the police immediately. This is a dangerous situation that seems to be escalating.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline offers very helpful advice for concerned friends and family members who are worried about or witnesses to an abusive relationship. Read through the Web site for guidance: ndvh.org. The NDVH phone number is 800-799-SAFE (7233); you can call and speak to a counselor. Also give this number to your friend, and encourage her to call.

I’m curious to know how Amy distinguished between this situation and the situation in the previous letter. Was the previous letter not abuse because children were involved? Because it was ‘just’ sibling rivalry? Why did the earlier letter writer need to ‘toughen up,’ while this second letter writer is receiving referrals to domestic violence hotlines?

This is an important thing to talk about because these ‘calls’ are made every day by people in positions of authority, and in positions to do something. Police officers, teachers, counselors, and parents are all regularly required to evaluate situations and ‘decide’ if they are abusive or not. Sometimes, the input of the people actually involved is not considered.

In the first letter, Amy told a young person inside an abusive dynamic who identified what she was experiencing as abuse that she wasn’t really being abused. In the second letter, she told an adult outside an abusive dynamic who was afraid that the situation might be abusive that it was, indeed, abusive, and provided resources to use for help. The difference between these responses is marked, and it speaks to a lot of inequalities in society.

Young people are routinely devalued by adults and their words are disregarded by people in positions of authority. Adults are held up as more credible and reliable. People in abusive relationships are often told that their own experiences don’t matter, and what they’re experiencing isn’t really abuse, while people outside abusive relationships are viewed as authorities on those relationships. This has real world consequences, sometimes dangerous and even fatal ones.

Young people and people in abusive relationships learn not to reach out and ask for help precisely because of responses like Amy’s, and the responses of other people in power. Ask Amy says that young people who feel they are being abused should seek out adult advice and adult intervention. Well, that’s what the earlier letter writer did, and Amy told her to toughen up.

Dear Imprudence: Just Toughen Up Already!

Oh, Ask Amy. You’re still on my shit list for your rape apologism, and yet, I keep reading your column. I admit it, I mainly do it so that I can find particularly awful pieces of advice to feature here.

This week, a high school student writes about a problem she’s experiencing at home:

Dear Amy: I’m a high school student and feel like I am being verbally abused by my brother, who constantly tells me that I don’t do things right.

For example, he criticizes me for not putting dishes away after I am done with them.

Whenever he criticizes me, he says things like, “You’re lazy.” Or he’ll say, “If you continue to make these choices then you probably won’t have the greatest path you can have in life.”

Whenever we get into an argument, he says he’s smarter than I am because I have a GPA of 3.85 and his is 4.3 (he’s taken AP classes).

His words hurt me and my self-esteem suffers, even if I know he doesn’t really mean it. I do believe he loves me for who I am, but this bothers me.

I don’t know how to handle this problem.

— Hurt Sister

Let’s be clear here. Hurt Sister is saying that what her brother is doing is actively hurting her. She cites that it’s a blow to her self esteem, and it makes her feel bad. She’s writing to ask for help. It’s worth noting that all over the world, every single day, people experiencing verbal abuse cry out for help, and they often get responses exactly like Amy’s:

Dear Hurt: A big brother riding you about not cleaning up the kitchen, or saying he’s smarter than you, is not verbal abuse.

People have different qualities, strengths and weaknesses. Your brother might have a better GPA, but you might be a compassionate friend (he sounds lacking in the compassion department). He might be good at chemistry but you might be good at languages, art or geometry. Your GPA would put you at the tippy top in my household (and most households).

Words do hurt. But they hurt less if you make a healthy choice to let the stuff roll off you that you know isn’t true. Your parents should nip this in the bud, but you shouldn’t leave your brother in charge of your self-esteem.

Evidently you never learned the comeback to petty sibling badmouthing. The next time he calls you lazy or dumb, you say, “I know you are, but what am I?”

All together now: Wrong! You know what is verbal abuse? Something that someone identifies as abuse because that person is experiencing it. There are definitely degrees of verbal abuse, but they are all abusive. This is a short letter. We don’t know all the details. But it seems to me, reading between the lines, that her brother is constantly hounding her, is constantly making her feel small and worthless, is constantly saying that he is better than her, is constantly reminding her that she is ‘not doing things right’ and, you know what? That can become highly abusive when you are hearing it over and over.

Especially if you are aware of how it is impacting the way you feel about yourself. Hurt Sister is not writing in to say ‘this is annoying and it bugs me,’ she is writing to say this hurts me and I want it to stop.

Amy’s response is the equivalent of the old ‘sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me’ adage, with a side of ‘you shouldn’t let the things that other people say about you affect you.’ Well, guess what. Words hurt people. The things that people say about (and to) you affect you, whether you like it or not. It’s not always possible to make a ‘healthy choice’ to ignore verbal abuse, especially when you are a high school student, in your own home, a place that should be safe, and your family member is subjecting you to it.

Contrast this letter with this week’s Dear Prudence, where a reader writes in about being increasingly afraid of her husband because of verbal abuse and acts of violence. Here’s what Prudie said:

There is no excuse for the kind of assault he is inflicting on you…He sounds potentially dangerous, and just an arm adjustment away from punching your jaw instead of the wall. Stop apologizing and start packing. You may even need someone to accompany you when you get your things and tell him you will no longer live in fear in your own home…Nice line he spewed about not faulting him for your faults. Now he can contemplate how it’s his fault that your marriage is about to come apart.

Verbal abuse is abuse.  It’s abusive and it’s hurtful and, as Prudence points out, it can escalate to physical violence. I’m not saying that Hurt Sister is in physical danger from her brother, but I am saying that her feeling, that this is abuse, is valid, because she is experiencing it, and Amy should have recognised that and provided her with some assistance on addressing it, instead of telling her, basically, to toughen up.

There’s a prevailing and extremely dangerous attitude that verbal abuse isn’t ‘real’ abuse, despite ample evidence to the contrary. That attitude manifests in the way that people at all levels deal with abuse, from teachers handling bullying to human resource directors in offices with hostile work environments. If an abuser uses words alone to harm people, that abuser is far more likely to get away with it, and the responsibility for dealing with it will be placed solely on the victim. It’s the victim’s fault for being ‘too sensitive’ and not ‘toughening up.’

I’d hazard that a fair number of FWD readers have probably experienced verbal abuse at some point in their lives, and may even be experiencing it now. How many people are told ‘just toughen up’ or ‘just ignore it’?

Yeah, that’s what I thought.

Suggestions for Dear Imprudence features are always welcome in my inbox! (meloukhia at gmail dot com)